During the process of learning how to write a novel, one is urged to study how to begin the story.
The opening of the novel is said to have the ability not so much to break it, as is seen as a chance to raise it to the memorable level. These first sentences are analyzed, talked about, pulled apart and used as a topic for a lot of writing. Many people know some of them by heart, and only fewer of them know the authors.
Opening like “Once upon a time…” and “When I woke up in the morning…” are generally frowned upon. So are long descriptions before any action is being set. Something needs to happen on the third page at the latest.
The opening in medias res is a good one, and I like it a lot. The author starts the novel in the middle of the activity, and the reader is put in the midst of the action right away.
But the best ones don’t belong to any of these. Here are some examples of those.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
“He was the old man, who fished alone…”
I read most of these stories trying to analyze for myself what makes them great. I didn’t give the authors’ names, so anybody who wants it, can test his or hers knowledge.
Then I came across this one:
“All this happened, more or less.”
It fascinated me, so I read the book. It just so happened that a few days ago it was the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.
The novel is written by Kurt Vonnegut, who during WW II was fighting in Europe as an American GI. The story is woven around his experiences during the bombing of Dresden, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war. The book was written during the Vietnam War and is, in the simplest terms, a story about the cruelty and absurdity of war. Any war. The timing was appropriate since the Vietnam War was unpopular, particularly among the young people, so Vonnegut knew he was preaching to the choir. His writing was easy to read and after a couple of excellent reviews in the New York Times, it became a hit. The fact that several churches banned the novel and some even staged its burning only helped its popularity.
Then I came to the statement that the bombing of Dresden done by Allied forces was “The greatest massacre in European history” and I read it twice. No, still the same: “The greatest massacre in European history.”
Really! I thought. Really?
There are many accounts of what happened in Dresden during the 13th through 15th of February 1945 carpet bombing by British and American air forces. We know how many bombers participated (more than 1,200 combined). There are conflicting accounts of the number of the victims (from 25,000 to 200,000 with the first number most commonly cited; the higher count was published by the German propaganda machine). The city was vastly ruined. The bombing was described as “an unnecessary carnage.”
So I got to thinking. Hmmm.
Just a few months before Dresden was bombed, people in Warsaw raised against the Germans. The fighting lasted 63 days. Many people died. Then there was surrender and the real carnage began. Warsaw was bombed for weeks. Penal German army battalions of criminals commanded by Oskar Dirlewanger and Russian convert Bronislaw Kaminski were sent to pacify the remaining population of the city. Dirlewanger, with a PhD in political science, was a known alcoholic, convicted for statutory rape and other sexual offenses, tried and convicted for illegal arms possession and embezzlement was being protected by his boss, who in turn was a friend of Himmler. His Sonderkommando was recruited from criminals, like himself, mental asylum patients and people recruited from the concentration camps with the promise of a better life if they obeyed his orders. The worst of the worst. The unit was well-known for torture, rapes and murder, not even mentioning the robberies of the actual and future victims. There was a well documented episode of raping and torturing a young Jewish girl before injecting her with strychnine to watch her die in convulsions. This was done for their entertainment. Dirlewanger’s favorite way of execution was locking his prisoners in a barn, putting it on fire, and then machine-gun those who tried to escape. Before they were sent to Warsaw, in Belarus they killed 120,000 people. He was investigated by a SS judge Morgen with no tangible results. For all this, he was awarded the German Cross in Gold.
So this group of savages was sent to pacify Warsaw. What followed was unspeakable. In rampage on Wola district Sonderkommando killed 40,000 civilians. It took them just two days. And this was just the beginning. They burned three hospitals, all with the patients in them. They raped and then hanged nurses together with doctors. This was done to the sound of music. Then they moved to the Old Town, where they slaughtered 30,000 civilians. They burned prisoners with gasoline, impaled the babies on their bayonets or smashed their heads against the walls. They hung women from the balconies. They couldn’t have all the bodies buried, so they burned them with flamethrowers.
It was done after the Germans promised at the capitulation ceremony to treat the soldiers accordingly to the Geneva convention and to spare the civilian population. Alexandra Richie described all these atrocities in her book Warsaw 1944. Her work was criticized for too many graphic details.
During this time, while Warsaw was being annihilated, Russians were watching from the other bank of the Vistula river, “resting.”
After the Germans were done with us, our casualties were assessed as 200,000 civilians and the city was 85% leveled off. Warsaw used to be described as “Paris of the East”. Now 95% of the all historical buildings were destroyed.
I was able to survive all this carnage in the arms of my Mother. We escaped after given a few hour windows to gather our belongings and evacuate from the city. Then came the bombers, to be followed by troops with flamethrowers. On Hitler’s order, Warsaw had to be erased from the map of the world.
So now we are free to compare the flash destruction of Dresden to the premeditated, methodical murder of Warsaw.
And we are not the ones who started the war!
Then we come back to the opening of “Slaughterhouse Five” by Vonnegut.
“All this happened, more or less.”
The “more or less” is important. It gives the author the permission to use licentia poetica. This is not a documentary nor is it a peer review book. The opinions presented in this book are only the ones of the author. This is not a source of reliable historical data.
There is an inherit danger of getting solid historical information from even the best of novels.
As it is, from the comedians. It’s so easy to present information as news nicely wrapped in comedy. It’s deceptively palatable and easy to digest, and one is not committed to the truth. In case of trouble, you can say “I’m joking, I’m just a comedian” A long time ago there was a position of the court jester. He was the only one who could tell the truth to the king without a threat of his whimsical punishment. This job, however, came with the requirement of integrity, which is now frequently missing.
And “so it goes.”